A step-by-step primer on how to live the writing life

July 21, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

I've only met a few writers who have really been able to tickle an audience. Most writers are solitary, morose types not given to great displays of wit in public or private. Anne Lamott is one exception and I'm happy to say that Donna Levin is another.

Levin came to UC Davis last week as part of the continuing summer series on "Women Writers of Northern California" and she put the audience in stitches.

She came to talk about how to be a Northern California writer and her advice was disarmingly simple.

"First, you have to live in Northern California. Then you have to find someone to support you," she said.

If you can find someone willing to pay the rent while you write, go for it. Don't worry about how it looks. Don't worry about being politically correct or incorrect. In that regard, Levin cheerfully told the audience, "I'm as shallow as the next gal. If someone is willing to support you while you write, go for it."

Levin said the wonderful stories about fantastically highly paid fiction writers - the literary superstars -- have encouraged people to think that writing fiction must be a very lucrative way to make a living. That's as untrue as the other extreme that says there are only 75 fiction writers in the United States who are able to support themselves by their work. The truth lies somewhere in between.

"Most writers try to do writing-related things," she said. "They teach...or they write (in other fields)."

Levin, for instance, teaches writing at the UC Extension in Berkeley and reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times. She also used to review books on the air for several San Francisco radio stations. And she has written two popular how-to books: "Get That Novel Started" (1992) and "Get That Novel Written" (1996).

She has written two novels and a third is in the works.

But Levin says not all writers have followed her career path of teaching, writing and talking about books. Some people consider their writing lives sacred and therefore spend their working lives doing something completely different - such as delivering packages for UPS or working at the Hunt-Wesson tomato factory.

She also suggests that you, the budding writer, not drive yourself crazy asking questions about the publishing industry that can't be answered. Like wondering why "The Bridges of Madison County" was such a hit.

"It's one of those big mysteries of life," she said. "You have to just live with it."

In fact, writers may live longer and be happier, she said, if they resign themselves to a certain amount of obscurity. Not total obscurity, just a certain amount.

"Remember that there are an awful lot of books being published," she said. "It's not the publisher, buyer or reviewer's fault if your book doesn't become a best seller. There are more good books than readers. And the only way to change that is to encourage kids and adults to read good books."

Levin suggests that all writers remember that they are the lucky ones.

"I don't know a single writer who doesn't feel incredibly blessed to be a writer...call us crazy," she said. "Writers may complain, feel discouraged, doubt their own ability, but they love it."

And Levin warns that doubts will come. When you sit down in front of your computer or typewriter and look at your novel or screenplay and have a sudden revelation: "This is meaningless" Levin encourages you to work through it.

"Every writer reaches a crisis in his or her work...but you work it through and do it anyway, taking responsibility for it and owning it." Someone in the audience asked Levin if she read other books while she worked on her own novels.

"If you're a serious writer you write everyday and you read a lot, too," she said. "A novel is a years-long project. You can't not read for years at a time. Reading other people's work doesn't erode your own style."

Levin also had something unusual to say about the emergence of the big superstores, which are said to be cutting little independent book-sellers out of business. She doesn't think the trend is all bad, at least not for the reader. The big stores keep more books on the shelves for longer amounts of time and open additional stores in little towns or small malls that might not otherwise have a bookstore at all, she said.

And, one last question. Can someone really learn to write from a book?

"There are some things that a person with talent still needs to learn," she said. "There are no rules...but we can observe what works and what we like."

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